The February 15, 2019 arrests of Baring Vostok Capital top managers on fraud charges sent shock waves through the ever-shrinking community of those still investing in Russia. The incident, however, is rather illustrative of the so-called “investment climate” of Putin’s Russia, and should not surprise anyone.
With its investment portfolio valued at over $3.7 bln, Baring Vostok is the largest private equity firm investing in Russia and the former Soviet States. It has operated in Russia since 1994, weathering through the rough period of the post-Soviet transition, and managing to stay out of trouble with the Russian government. In fact, a quick look at the Baring’s investment profile makes it apparent that the firm succeeded in what the Russian government had said repeatedly it wanted to do, but failed — namely, diversify the Russian economy and develop technologically advanced industries.
Baring has invested extensively in IT and telecom companies, as well as in the Russian retail sector and financial services. It took the plunge and became one of the first private investors in the leading Russian IT company Yandex. That’s the legacy the firm is obviously proud of, as its official website prominently features a quote from Yandex’s founder and CEO Arkadiy Volozh:
“Baring Vostok Fund and its professionals have become true partners and sound advisors, and we are counting on our relationship to continue for many more years.”
Despite Russia’s worsening economic downturn of recent years, Baring had stayed put as the last active venture investment fund in Russia.
German Gref, the CEO of a Russian state-owned bank Sberbank, when commenting on the arrest of Baring’s founder Michael Calvey, characterized him as “an honest and decent man who has done a lot to bring investments into Russia, to develop a high-tech economy.”
What grave transgression has led Baring to such a fall then? The answer is quite mundane.
Baring is currently in the midst of a corporate conflict over the control of a troubled bank Vostochny (ranked #32 in Russia by assets) with a man named Artyom Avetisyan. In recent years, Avetisyan has become Putin’s darling, and has been appointed as Director of the “New Business” initiative at the Agency of Strategic Initiatives, a nonprofit organization established by the Russian government to advance the Russian economy with the ambitious goal of “taking leading positions in the world.”
Avetisyan seems to move in lofty circles. The Bell reports that he is a longtime friend and partner of Dmitry Patrushev, the Russian Agriculture Minister and the son of a former FSB chief and the current Secretary of the National Security Council Nikolay Patrushev.
Not so long ago, Forbes Russia has published an in-depth profile of Artyom Avetisyan, detailing his business partnerships with sons of former head of the Kremlin Administration Alexandr Voloshin; his dealings with the current deputy head of the Kremlin Administration Vladislav Surkov (who is also in charge of the Russian occupation of Eastern parts of Ukraine, and from 2000-2011 was the domestic policy czar infamous for his brutal crackdowns on the opposition); as well as his relationship with Oleg Gref, the son of a former Minister of Economy and currently the CEO of Sberbank German Gref.
The Baring arrests have been instigated by Avetisyan and his partners who had managed to enlist the support of the FSB, claiming that shares of International Financial Technology Group (IFTG) with which Baring had repaid the debt of one of its subsidiaries to bank Vostochny are “worthless.” Baring values these shares at 2.5 bln rubles (or $37.5 mln.), whereas the FSB has claimed in court that they are worth next to nothing. An independent Russian media outlet the Bell, however, reports that a formal KPMG audit suggests that IFTG’s assets roughly correspond to the value cited by Baring.
Disagreements over value of assets, like the one between the Baring and Avetisyan camps are quite common. They are commercial disputes that should be settled in arbitration courts in accordance with the civil law. However, in today’s Russia, civil law is virtually non-existent. Arbitration attorneys lament difficulties with finding work, as it is cheaper for businesses to bribe the police or the FSB and have them open a criminal case against competitors (the scenario that frequently ends with the victim quickly conceding to minimize the disruption to business operations), than to engage in an unpredictable and protracted due process. The Baring arrests scandal is an example of exactly this type of a scheme.
Avetisyan, instead of resolving a corporate dispute through a civil law process, prompted the infamous siloviki (strongmen) to interfere and arrest the top management of Baring Vostok. Absurdly, the charges against Baring are not even within the official purview of state prosecutors. What’s even more absurd is the fact that the allegations of fraud are based on valuation — a subjective category established by expert assessments — and not on objective figures of losses, actual write-offs, etc.
Clearly, Avetisyan with his high-level political access and protection feels confident engaging in such games. They are commonplace in today’s Russia, and he is just one of thousands of functionaries of Putin’s regime seeking enrichment at any cost. But can Russia afford to bear their consequences for the investment climate? Forbes calls this development “fatal.”
As a member of Russian political opposition, I have no business defending Baring Vostok. For decades, they had worked well as loyal cogs in Putin’s machine. They cynically validated with their participation the endless string of sham economic conferences organized by the Russian government. They came as special guests invited by officials, and nodded their heads while listening to hypocritical speeches about Russia’s “business climate.” They had known what was going on in the country, but preferred to stay silent, thinking that they would be the exception, and they would able to profit from investing in Putinomics, with someone else having to pay.
Baring arrests last week made it clear that there is no such thing as “someone else.” The foundation of Putin’s system is the predation of the siloviki and their alliances with thieving “businessmen” who advance their interests by using their affiliations with the FSB or police as “competitive advantage.”
According to Putin’s own business ombudsman, Boris Titov, in 2017 alone, over 268,000 new criminal cases were opened against entrepreneurs in Russia. This is a 20% increase from 2013. Only about 20% of “fraud” cases opened are heard in court, and when they do, most of them are dismissed due to demonstrated intention to extort or the failure to establish the element of criminal act.
The Russian opposition has long argued that economic disputes must be settled in accordance with the civil law, and law enforcement agencies must not be allowed to interfere in cases that can be settled through basic arbitration. Arrests of entrepreneurs on charges that involve commercial disputes are simply unacceptable.
The essence of the Baring Vostok case is not in the specifics of the dispute regarding Bank Vostochny, but in the pervasive abuse of power to advance commercial interests, which has become the hallmark of Putin’s regime, and has spread throughout the entirety of its hierarchy down to the proverbial Avetisyans. It delivers a sobering message to foreign investors who thought that they could remain safe, conduct their business and make their profit as long as they were careful to stay out of politics and not cross the big guys like Gazprom or Rosneft.
Today, even a small guy like Artyom Avetisyan equipped with proper connections will use them to smoke their competition — and so they go up in flames, with the whiffs of Russia’s “business climate” along with it.
It’s time to face the reality — as long as Putin and his criminal system remain in power, fair and legally protected investment in Russia is simply not possible.